Calling a COBRA meeting has always been the last refuge of a desperate government. Gordon Brown used to convene COBRA if they couldn’t find the office stapler. They were held to discuss everything from bombs to floods to agricultural diseases. Cameron called one yesterday to discuss the government response to the prospect of a tanker drivers’ strike. I happened to be outside Downing Street yesterday lunchtime. The excitement was tangible. It certainly served as a useful distraction from the nation’s fleeting fixation with Greggs’ sausages and the West Cornwall Pasty Co.
Ministers also hope we forget that Cruddas bloke, peddling influence in Downing Street like one of those people selling joints of meat from a van. Snobs have been deriding Cruddas, who grew up in Hackney, left school without even an O level, and is now worth £860 million, as a ‘barrow boy’. I think that’s unfair to barrow boys. Cruddas is the kind of city wide boy who gives city wide boys a bad name. Ministers have cast him into the dark place occupied by the likes of Werrity, Sarah Southern and anyone else who mistakes political acquaintence for actual loyalty.
It might be the first time the government’s emergency planning committee has been convened to deliberate over a crisis which the government itself has stoked up. Cards on the table: I’m no conspiracy theorist. I think Norman Baker is a loon. I think Bilderburg is just a load of old men getting together to swap stories about their prostates. I believe men landed on the moon, Al-Qaeda brought down the twin towers and that Diana’s death was a tragic accident. I have Voodoo Histories on my shelf, well-thumbed.
But I am sure that ministers secretly want a tanker drivers strike, and their actions over the past 72 hours prove it. I’ve written before about a discernable assualt on the trade unions being mounted across many fronts by this government. Ministers want to tame the unions for philosophical reasons; they want to undermine their role in the Labour Party for partisan reasons; they want to hang the union-party link around the neck of Ed Miliband for political reasons. Look at the instant ministerial reaction to the Cam Dine With Me scandal which broke on Sunday: it became an attack on trade union funding of the Labour Party. I bet they’re planning a bill right now which makes Taff Vale look like a billet-doux.
A tanker drivers’ strike allows the government to look tough and resolute as the nation grinds to a halt. It allows ministers to attack the ‘enemy within’ in the shape of Unite, and to seek to embarrass Labour because of its union links. Cameron has stoked the flames with the same degree of concern for public safetly as Francis Maude’s suggestion the nation fills its garages with jerry-cans of petrol. Stockpiling flamable liquids is illegal for a very good reason, and it’s not health & safety gone mad. It’s because it’s very dangerous. And anyway, how many households even have access to a garage? Out of the seven or eight flats and houses I’ve lived in as a grown-up, only my current one has a garage. Maude assumes everyone has outbuildings, stable blocks or gate-houses, but they don’t.
In the 1970s, polytechnic sociology departments spent hours observing the lead-up and conduct of industrial disputes. They did the nation a great service. We now can spot the bias in the media reporting of industrial disputes, whereby unions are always ‘threatening’ action, but employers are always ‘offering’ compromise. Unite have a case, and their members have the right to strike. It’s a legal dispute, unlike the fuel protesters’ wild-cat picketing of refineries which almost brought the NHS to its knees when Blair was prime minister.
Ministers would like nothing better than panic buying at the pumps, super-markets and branches of Greggs. They will be able to reconvene parliament, march resolutely up and down Downing Street and leak a tick-tock of details from COBRA. Most of all, they hope it will distract attention from a rotten budget with all the popular appeal of measles, a slump in the polls, and a series of public relations disasters which add up to a sense of a mean-minded government, out-of-touch with the pasty-eating majority, and mired in sleaze.